Gore In Charge
rom birth, Al Gore has been steeped in politics. For the first 22 years of his life, his father sat in Congress, and for the past 23 and a half years, Gore has divided his time between the House, the Senate and the vice presidency. In Los Angeles this month, the Democratic Party will bestow its presidential nomination upon him.
But for a man so close to the pinnacle of political success, the 52-year-old Gore possesses a most curious image. Not even his most enthusiastic supporters would cast him for a movie role as a smooth politician.
Although keenly partisan, Gore doesn't come across as "a political animal," says Roy Neel, who has known Gore for a quarter century and was his top aide on Capitol Hill. Suggesting that wonkish may be the way most people see his former boss, Neel shrugs and says "raw politics has never been perceived to be [Gore's] strength anyway."
Management guru David Osborne, who helped Gore launch the Clinton administration's "reinventing government" initiative in 1993, bluntly declares that the Vice President "is not a gifted campaigner." And Steven Kelman, an academic who served as an Office of Management and Budget expert on procurement reforms, describes Gore as something of a paradox among politicians, someone "who seems much worse in public than he is in private."
Compared with others who have served in the Oval Office, Gore would be a President who "likes governing and governance better than he likes politics," says Elaine Kamarck, a top campaign adviser who earlier served as the Vice President's point person on government reform. After all, she explains, "reinventing government certainly was not something that anybody would tell you is the ticket to political success."
Attorney Ron Klain, former chief of staff to the Vice President, adds that Gore is not entirely indifferent to politics. "He loves to get out there on the campaign trail and interact with folks, [but] the part of politics that he does not enjoy is . . . thinking about strategies and gamesmanship" and the sorts of tactics that amount simply to devising a "means to an end," Klain says.
To Gore's admirers, however, the Vice President's lack of a natural talent promoting himself in a crowd-pleasing manner is more than offset by his seriousness of purpose and detailed understanding of the emerging information age economy. Even his uneven performances as a candidate-Gore's abrupt shifts in tone and garb and the sudden changes in the leadership and location of his campaign operation-are said to reflect strengths that would prove useful in the Oval Office. Among them:
- He takes the pragmatic approach of a skilled manager in his approach to problems. "He's going to do things differently, as the situation requires him to," Neel says. "Gore had to step into the shoes of a manager to run the reinventing government initiative and had to learn the way managers think," Osborne adds. And Donald Kettl, an expert on public administration at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), stresses that Gore would bring a unique "understanding of-and appreciation for-the connection between management and policy" to the presidency.
- He believes in government and wants it to succeed. Despite his wonkish fascination with new technologies and the evolving information economy, Gore's political roots extend back to the New Deal and the Tennessee Valley Authority electrification
projects that brought higher living standards to his home state and region. "He thinks of reinventing government as redeeming a great experiment [begun] 200 years ago that's sort of scraping along now because [government] hasn't been working well," says Bob Stone, who directed Gore's government reform initiative.
- He's a known quantity on Capitol Hill, where his grasp of policy details is respected even by those who philosophically differ with him. "Members of Congress will be able to engage [with Gore] in thoughtful, constructive discussion and debate," predicts former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota. Neel, who now heads a telecommunications trade association, adds that a Gore White House would likely be staffed with "real pros [who] know how to return phone calls and move information on"-skills that are key to smoothing relations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
A successful President, of course, must be more than a pragmatic manager with a grasp of the new information economy and knowledge of the ways of Capitol Hill. If Gore makes it to the White House, he'll also have to master the old-fashioned art of political persuasion that's needed to build public confidence in-and support for-his agenda.
A Managerial Mentality?
A humorous anecdote from his early days in Congress may offer a hint that Gore has a manager's penchant for listening to expert advice and using it to achieve the outcome he desires. According to Neel, a wealthy friend of the Gore family berated the young House member for "dressing like a Tennessee farmer" and warned him that he would never rise to higher office if he continued to commit such sartorial sins as wearing his trouser cuffs 2 inches too short.
With great reluctance, so the story goes, Gore accepted the friend's invitation to be fitted by a tailor. But when his new, custom-made suit arrived a month later, the trousers were just the way Gore wanted them-"still 2 inches too short," Neel laughs.
Osborne finds Gore's focus on results refreshing. As President, he suggests, "Gore would pay attention to the quality of management and implementation in the federal government." That sets him apart from "most politicians, [who] think that passing a law or adopting a policy means having an impact of some kind, forgetting that if it's implemented poorly, it is worthless," argues Osborne, who is now a partner in the consulting firm Public Strategies Group.
Kettl adds that Gore's longtime interest in computers and the Internet makes him particularly well equipped to champion reforms in the way the government is managed and goes about carrying out its mission. "He's a new wave kind of guy who looks at technology, looks at customer service and looks at innovative management practices," the University of Wisconsin academic says.
Stories abound about the Vice President's voluminous e-mail correspondence. "He lived by it," recalls former reinvention honcho Stone. "He used it for serious work and [also] had a lot of fun with it." Stone estimates that he has sent some 200 e-mail messages to Gore and received prompt answers to every one of them. And he says it was not at all uncommon for Gore to interrupt a working meeting when his computer beeped so that he could check out the latest e-mail message.
Kelman, who's now a professor of public management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a contributing columnist for Government Executive, says he found that the best way to get a needed decision or response was via e-mail. He recalls the large computer screen on Gore's desk as the dominant feature of the Vice President's office. "It was quite large-certainly bigger than mine-and it was always turned on."
Gore's ex-vice presidential chief of staff Klain says it is significant that Gore not only would be "our first e-mail-friendly President, but the first President to carry a Palm Pilot on his belt," because it indicates how broadly he reaches out for advice. Such devices, Klain adds, short-circuit the gatekeeping functions that traditionally have limited access to Presidents. "He's more of a modern-style CEO than an old-style, up-the-chain-of-command sort of person," the former aide asserts.
Klain describes Gore as a "voracious reader" who is remarkably efficient at "getting through an enormous amount of material very quickly." He likes to debate issues and to have them debated before him. "He likes to understand every side of an issue, so he'll frequently use the staff to play devil's advocate and look at something from an opposing viewpoint," says Kamarck.
Gore exhibited sound managerial instincts, according to Kettl, in organizing the administration's management reform initiative. "There was always one very senior person close to him shepherding the proj- ect, plus a small coterie of people who made up the staff of what first was called the National Performance Review and then became the National Partnership for Reinventing Government."
Within the agencies, larger groups of people became involved in what Kettl describes as a series of concentric circles that formed "kind of a virtual reinvention community." Because relations between the administration and Congress soured early, "it became clear that the reinvention project would have to proceed without legislation and accomplish what it could administratively," Kettl says. The lone exception was in the area of procurement reform, where laws were enacted in 1993 and 1994.
In Kettl's view, Gore's performance on management reform issues demonstrated "an instinct for flexibility and pragmatism in dealing with tough political realities" and showed that "he has what it takes to stick with an issue for the long haul."
At first blush, the most significant accomplishment of the Gore-led "reinventing government" initiative was slashing the federal payroll by eliminating some 350,000 jobs. It was also the easiest thing to do, Kelman says, because "there was a political upside to downsizing government, and Gore could get some credit from the public for standing up to the [employee] interest groups."
Within the bureaucracy, however, there are bruised feelings and criticisms that some agencies have been hollowed out and no longer can adequately carry out the missions expected of them. Bobby L. Harnage, head of the largest federal workers' union, says his organization volunteered to work with the administration to arrive at cuts that would "right-size" the government. But the union chief says Clinton and Gore went too far. "They proceeded to downsize the government and to brag about it," he says, adding that "some very serious problems" have developed as a result.
Such grumbling is inevitable, counters Osborne, who credits Gore and his reinvention team with "going to great lengths to figure out how to get the government to work smarter and to cut costs by using technology." While agreeing that "there is no solution to a tough problem that doesn't have some downsides," Osborne insists that "there are a lot of career civil servants who feel liberated by what Gore has been trying to do. They've been given the freedom to actually use their heads and do the best that they can do."
Polling of federal employees indicates that morale is highest at agencies where the spirit of reinvention has taken hold. Overall, says Stone, about 60 percent of federal employees responding to a recent administration survey indicate they are satisfied with their jobs, only slightly lower than the 62 percent rate reported in comparable private-sector polls. But among the roughly one-third of government workers who said that management reform was a priority in their agency, the satisfaction rate was a striking 84 percent.
Harnage, national president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, says reforms have been most successful where labor and management have worked together. "Everywhere there is a working partnership, it has produced a great example of how things ought to work," he declares. The union leader gives Gore mixed marks, noting that "there are areas where he has worked with us and areas where he has disappointed us."
Stone argues that Gore, as President, would command considerable loyalty, "particularly within the civil service," because he has met extensively with government workers to hear their views and express his confidence in their competence. The former director of the reinvention staff relates that he once suggested to Gore that he strike a compromise with Republican congressional leaders who wanted to create a bipartisan commission of experts to recommend changes in the way government operates. Gore pounded his fist on the table, Stone recalls, and replied: "Look, we've got the experts. The people who are in government are the experts at running it. We don't need to bring in a bunch of outsiders who don't know it."
Gore put that belief into practice, according to Osborne, by recruiting career civil servants such as Stone, a veteran Defense Department manager, to staff the reinvention initiative.
The reform initiative ran into problems, Osborne adds, not from civil servants but from "political appointees, whom we just assumed would come along because they worked for Clinton and Gore." It didn't happen that way, he recalls, explaining that "political appointees typically are not managers and tend not to trust the troops. They focused on policy and politics and just kind of ignored reinvention."
As President, Gore's time and attention would mostly be drawn to more pressing issues, both domestic and foreign, his supporters agree. But in appointing his administration, he's more likely than other recent occupants of the Oval Office to seek candidates with managerial interests and skills. "He would be the President most concerned with issues of how the federal government actually operates and is run that we've ever had," Kelman says.
Coping With Capitol Hill
Over the past two dozen years, Gore's time has been divided equally between service as a member of the House, as a Senator and, in the capacity of Vice President, as the president of the Senate. He thus has long-standing friendships with many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Such connections can be quite valuable in facilitating good communication, notes Neel, but a President ultimately must pursue his own initiatives and agenda. "And if that is counter to what the leadership of Congress-Republican or Democratic-wants, then he is going to have to make a fight. And all the wonderful relationships in the world aren't going to make that a lot easier," the former Gore aide warns.
Neel is quick to make the case that Gore, during his years on the Hill, frequently worked closely with like-minded Republican lawmakers on arms control and telecommunications issues, as well as a variety of investigative and oversight activities. "Where there were mutual interests, he was as nonpartisan as you can get," Neel recalls.
In the White House, however, things are likely to be different. "Presidents are elected as partisans, and when they find themselves at loggerheads with Congress, partisanship is going to come into it," Neel says.
Partisanship aside, Gore's Hill experience should make him more sensitive to procedural gaffes that create needless friction between lawmakers and the White House. Pressler, for example, suggests that Gore would surround himself with aides who would be more forthcoming with Congress than the current administration has been. Legislators seeking the administration's position on a bill or amendment "would find out right away," the ex-Senator predicts, adding, "that's not the case right now."
Neel says the key to legislative liaison work is honesty and professionalism, not personal relationships or cronyism. A Republican congressional leadership, he explains, will not expect a Gore White House to be staffed by people with whom it has close relations. But GOP leaders will look for "people who know their jobs, are honest and play straight with them," the longtime Gore aide says.
Kelman notes that Gore's ties to members of his own party on Capitol Hill proved invaluable in overcoming obstacles encountered during the development of the procurement reform bills passed in 1993 and 1994. "I always knew that in a pinch, if I needed his help in dealing with Congress, I could get it," the former OMB official recalls.
On several occasions, Gore either telephoned key lawmakers or set up meetings in his office to work out problems that, for the most part, were raised by Democrats concerned about protecting the interests of constituents such as minority contractors, Kelman says.
As President, Kettl says, Gore would still have his work cut out trying to bring along "Democrats on the Hill who have old constituencies to protect. Especially the public employee unions." He nonetheless lauds Gore for his "understanding of and appreciation for the connection between management and policy" and for his willingness to become involved in the low-profile issue of government reform.
Occupants of the Oval Office rarely focus clearly on issues of internal structure and improving systems in ways that enhance what a President can do, notes Princeton University presidential scholar Fred I. Greenstein. Kettl thinks Gore's grasp of the internal workings of government could make him a rare exception. "He's been around the federal government for a long time, and if he doesn't understand how the sausage is made, then there is never going to be anybody who understands it," he says.
Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal.
NEXT STORY: Viewpoint